As we reached the hide, the bear was already there. We could see him, very clearly, mauling away at his dinner. His presence was obvious, not just for his incredible size but his deep breathing that echoed in the silent forest. It was overwhelming. Watching one of the world’s greatest predators in his own home, at peace as he ate. I wondered if he knew that we were there, just metres away, watching him as he moved around the forest, searching for berries to eat. His role as the alpha male, kept the other bears away, prevented mothers and their cubs from collecting their food, as they waited for him to finish before they could enter the forest…
The night before, I had arrived at Kajaani airport, excited to begin my three-night wildlife trip in Eastern Finland, visiting nature reserves along the Russian border in the hope of seeing the incredible brown bear, a mammal us humans have always been greatly curious of.
I was taken to the Martinselkonen nature park where my excitement and expectation of seeing a brown bear grew immensely. It was clear from speaking to the other guests who were staying at the centre that my chances of seeing a bear were incredibly high. The centre is located close to the Russian border in the municipality of Suomussalmi in Eastern Finland and offers one of the greatest chances of seeing the brown bear in Finland. The Eurasian brown bear (Ursus Arctos Arctos) was near extinction in Northern Europe and Russia due to the extensive hunting that occurred prior to the Russian Revolution in 1917. Today, however, a visit to one of the hides at the Martinselkonen centre can provide the opportunity of seeing up to twenty brown bears in just one night.
Making our way to the hide in the early evening, the group were silent as we walked through the pine forest, respectful of the wildlife that surrounded us. The sun was blazing, yet we covered ourselves with jumpers and long trousers to avoid a mosquito attack. As we continued through the forest, our guide stopped to show us a tree which had been clawed by a bear – perhaps it was a cub trying to escape the chase of a huge male. Knowing that the bears had been so close, made us even more excited to reach the hide.
I hadn’t anticipated seeing him there, oblivious to his surroundings, concentrating only on reaching his food. We crept inside the hide and anxiously got our cameras prepared so that we could capture an image of the huge mammal as he slowly walked towards the food that was waiting for him. The other bears kept their distance from the alpha, knowing that competing for his food would only cause trouble. We watched as they aggressively tucked into their food, moving only to find more.
Eventually, the males slowly left the forest and just moments later, a female walks near with her three small cubs. All at once, the group picked up their cameras and binoculars to get a better view of the adorable cubs, we had the pleasure of watching the bear cubs as they took one another’s food and hid behind their mothers, protected, as other bears walked into the area.
That evening, I had seen more brown bears than I could hope to see, with only 160 bears thought to be in the whole of Finland, we were incredibly lucky to see no less than twenty brown bears that night. It was the middle of July and due to the light of the Midnight Sun, we could see them just as clearly at midnight as we could when we arrived at 4pm.
The experience was one that I never thought I would have, seeing wildlife in their natural habitat is never something you can guarantee, but when you are lucky enough to view these mammals in their own home, it’s an experience you will never forget.
*We will be offering wildlife watching experiences in Eastern Finland from summer 2015. And you can explore Finland on one of our Arctic expeditions.